Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead Books 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Tales have passed down between generations for as long as mankind has been alive. These stories helped infuse the foundation of different cultures. Some tell of missing beans and talking animals, while others mention the nightly selection of new brides. And some tell of gingerbread.
Known for weaving folklore into her stories with a twist, Helen Oyeyemi uses inspiration from the classic, German fairy tale Hansel and Gretel for her book Gingerbread. The novel follows 17-year-old Perdita Lee and her mother, Harriet Lee. Perdita is “careful with her words,” “preoccupied with ephemerality,” and “neither liked nor disliked by her classmates she is merely disregarded” (8). Harriet, on the other hand, has a “pastel-colored aura,” is “always slightly overdressed,” and “has a slight Druhástranian accent that she downplays so as not to get exoticized” (2). Harriet also makes gingerbread from an old family recipe passed down through generations, but this gingerbread is not “comfort food” (1). To locate her mother’s long-lost, childhood friend, Gretel, Perdita bakes then devours the beloved gingerbread, including a mysterious, deadly ingredient. After her recovery, Perdita only agrees to tell her mother the story of how she found Gretel and Druhástrana in exchange for one of Harriet’s: how she came to leave it.
Using her gift for beautiful prose, Oyeyemi addresses the concept of life’s ever-changing movement through her development of character relationships. Perdita and Harriet’s mother-daughter relationship shares both the closeness and secrecy of the one Harriet has with her own mother, Margot: “Daughters are enigmatic minefields of classified information,” she says (28). The love these women share is mixed to form the book’s foundation, as you would mix the dry and wet ingredients to form bread dough. Harriet pursues better opportunities for the improvement of the quality of life for Perdita and herself just as Margot had done for Harriet.
As Oyeyemi highlights these close familial relationships, she also displays the Lees’ lack of intimate friendships. Perdita doesn’t mind the missing companionship with people her own age, and dissuades others from pursuing closeness with her. But Harriet longs for a true friend, and her actions from the continuous gingerbread tins for every PPA member to the constant holdout for Gretel’s return showcase her desire. Each time she is rejected, Harriet comforts herself with a real-life truth of attempting to form adult friendships: “…a lot of the people one meets have already formed close attachments, and there’s quite enough going on in those friendships already” (179). Perdita and Harriet allow their relationships to both soften and harden them as you would knead dough to shape it.
Harriet’s explanation of how she leaves Druhástrana, told with a central focus on the people who helped and hindered her journey, exemplifies life’s central trait: it is unknown . When Harriet faces the choice to leave and grow up or stay behind, Gretel offers her the perspective she needs to hear: “All that happens when you grow up is that your ethics get completely compromised and you do extremely dodgy things you never imagined doing, apparently for the sake of others” (118). Harriet reminds us we only think we’re sure about the decisions we make, from choosing the people we keep close to deciding when it’s the right time to put dough in the oven.
Oyeyemi’s novel isn’t a retelling of Hansel and Gretel nor does she strive to warn us against giving into temptation. Instead, her book puts the symbol of gingerbread at the forefront, explaining how things come to be. Life is not black and white; it’s always subject to change. We can make plans and follow all of the steps of the recipe to a tee, but there’s no telling what will come out of the oven.
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